Saturday Apr 13

JoannaCValente Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts,  Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. Their work can be found here

They Think They Can Touch You

When Baby Girl was 11, she found blood in her underwear. She wasn’t one of those girls who thought she was dying. Part of her was relieved—all of the other girls in her class acted so cool already—wearing baby pink lipstick and tube tops and painted their nails with the precision of Heteronymous Bosch. Secretly, she wanted to be like them—she hated her huge V-neck sweaters and denim overalls that her mom bought her. She hated her short hair. All of the girls in her class called her a boy, and while she didn’t necessarily feel like a girl either, she just wanted to be beautiful like Prince or David Bowie. Genderless.

Her bowl cut, however, didn’t make her look like a genderless alien who goes to disco parties and wear only black and sequence and silver lipstick. Darkness is the only color. Even then, Baby Girl knew this. Baby Girl wanted to be untouched. Boys think they can touch you—all of them think they can touch you and keep touching you until there is nothing left but an inflatable robot doll. That’s all they want.

Why do you hate to be touched? Her mother sometimes asked as Baby Girl would recoil from a hug. It’s not that she hated touch in general—if anything, she craved that kind of attention, the idea that you are loved and adored—but that kind of intimacy should be shared by people who actually love each other. That absence, that lack of love, is what makes hell real. Her mother’s foggy blue eyes, like the sea on a misty day, were at once piercing but somehow always seemed to miss the exact things she should see, the important things. They were also the same eyes as Uncle P, her mother’s twin brother.

Baby Girl used to love her mother’s eyes when she read her stories to coax her into sleep, when she would ride the Central Park carousel with her, when she would makes faces from across the dinner table whenever her dad said something particularly unfunny. But now, she can’t stand them—they remind her of dark rooms and scratchy skin and unsung screams and medicine bottles and dogs screeching and his hands and his hands and his hands.

It started out innocent—he would give her flowers when he’d come over to her parent’s house, sometimes surprise her with candy, sometimes pick her up after school to get ice cream sundaes at Carvel (he knew they were her favorite). But then, around the time she started bleeding, his hands touched her body in ways she knew were wrong. She remembered that speech her kindergarten teacher gave—that your private parts are yours, that you say no when someone tries to touch you there. She knew it was wrong, she knew her uncle knew it was wrong. He was family, wasn’t there supposed to be a line? Where was it? Who drew it? And why isn’t it her?

He came over once when her parents weren’t home—it was after school, so he knew her mom would still be at work—and her dad was never home before 8pm. It’s as if he knew she bled already and that beneath her oversized sweaters was a body that resembled a woman’s. Or what a woman is said to look like. He came into my room to look at my new paintings, asked me a few questions about school, if there were any boys I liked. I didn’t know what to say, so I mostly stood there looking away from his eyes that pierced through my body—my legs felt like jelly, as if my body knew what he was about to do, before my mind could actually comprehend it. Because I didn’t want it to be true.

Then, he took my hands into his—and I fled from my body, my spirit rushing to the corner of my ceiling, only to look down at my body standing there sluggishly, and his hands traveling from my hands to my back. Somehow, I let him lead me to my bed, as if I knew I couldn’t stop him. I wanted to scream. Everybody screams. But no scream came out. Not that it mattered because no one else was home. And no one else would be able to hear. If you scream when no one else is around, did you really scream? Is there actually sound coming out?

He unbuttoned my pale blue jeans. I remember looking at him straight in the face, shaking my head. I asked why, and he said, but you always knew, didn’t you? Haven’t you always known how much I love you? How beautiful you are? I kept shaking my head until I couldn’t shake it anymore. My tears welled up in my eyes so he became a blurry ghost the shape of a man hovering over me, pushing my body further into the bed as if I was in sunken dream turned nightmare.

Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle with you, he said as he unbuckled his pants and he stifled my cries with his hand. I couldn’t breathe, my nose full of snot. While I know it couldn’t have been longer than a half hour—so he could leave before my mom came home, erasing any trace of his existence—it felt like centuries, as if this had always been my life, as if all I knew was suffering.

Could you feel it? He asked. Could you feel how much I loved you? I laid there, lame and silent and dumbfounded. I don’t want to feel the real feel, I wanted to say. I wish I didn’t feel you or know you. I wish your eyes didn’t look like my mother’s. I wish my mother killed you in your mother’s womb. I wish neither of us existed. I didn’t say any of those things. He kissed me once and then left. My mother came home, made dinner, didn’t ask any questions. If she did, I don’t know if I would have told her anyway.

I tried to tell her once, asked her why Uncle P paid more attention to me than my cousins, said his special attention was annoying sometimes, but she told me I was being a “spoiled brat,” that other kids would die for the kind of attention I was getting—that I didn’t deserve. If only she realize she was right, but for different reasons.

They think they can touch you.